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War of the Worlds

Released 2005. Director: Steven Spielberg

STEVEN SPIELBERG TURNS HIS BACK ON E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. This time, visitors from outer space do not bond with children or play musical notes. In War of the Worlds, the extra-terrestrials are single-mindedly focused on wiping us out completely. They are malevolent, unstoppable and super-advanced.

This is top-tier sci-fi action from Hollywood. Everything about this movie shows Spielberg’s finger on the pulse of popular entertainment. He knows what works and how to give it to us. When Spielberg delivers, he’s a terrific director.

The foreboding in the shape of stormy dark clouds and vicious lightning strikes set the atmosphere, quite in a literal sense. The earth cracks and splits, the tripods rise to strike terror and the streets explode in chaos and carnage. Further down, the pandemonium at a ferry terminal is another superb action sequence.

On paper, these scenes sound cheesy. Aliens firing death rays, people running and screaming. On screen, it’s anything but. Spielberg works the power of the medium, making full use of a wide-screen terror, breathless moments paced and edited to absorb you into the rush of panic and tension.

War of the Worlds is among the best alien invasion disaster movies; a genre blockbuster that’s involving, chockfull of suspense and white-knuckled tension. The basic premise is the same as the 1953 original directed by Byron Haskin and based on H.G. Wells’s novel. Spielberg takes it several notches up in production value, harnessing the magic of movie-making technology while not sacrificing the human aspect.

This version focuses more on the hero character without sidetracking to the army, tells us more about the aliens (who are not Martians this time), adds some visceral horror with the harvesting of humans in baskets and ‘red weed’.

Amidst the catastrophic destruction, the survival and salvation of humankind is seen through the eyes of a man whose personal ordeal may also bring small redemption as a father who’s a failure in the eyes of his children and ex-wife.

Underneath the end-of-the-world calamity there is a streak of competitiveness among the men. Tom Cruise, as a crane operator at the dock, is the bluest of blue collars next to his ex-wife’s new partner, whose has a big house in a posh neighbourhood. When he tells his son “I don’t send you to school so you can flunk out,” his son retorts “You don’t pay for it. Tim does.”

The same teenage son wants to run off with the passing army to join in the fight against the invaders, because staying with his dad is useless. In his mind, his dad is not doing enough. Spielberg turns up the man versus man intensity when later on, father and daughter are offered shelter by Tim Robbins’s character at his farm house. When it becomes clear the two men have very different ideas on how best to stay alive, there can only be one man left standing. The scene is acted out behind closed doors, with extreme care and restraint.

The bigger competition, naturally, is humans against aliens. Interesting note: the word alien is never uttered in the movie. As the family scrambles to safety in the first wave of attack, Dakota Fanning, clearly playing a child who is well-read and informed, asks in all seriousness and fear, “Is it the terrorists?”

Whether it’s Cold War enemies of the 1950s or 21st century terrorism, the alien invaders are symbols of the times. A classic sci-fi has been updated, expanded and improved upon. One of Spielberg’s under-appreciated gems.

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